The Battle for the Right to Education

Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

This article references content included in the 2019 Spotlight Report, available for download at There will also be a side-event at the HLPF on 11 July, 9:30am-11:30pm at Baha’i International Community, 866 UN Plaza, New York. See the invitation here.

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which governments adopted in September 2015, have been described as a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision … of unprecedented scope and significance”.

Civil society organisations are important watchdogs to assess if governments are fulfilling the ambitions of international treaties. Since 2015 the Civil Society Reflection Group (CSRG) has been monitoring how governments and international organizations have been implementing Agenda 2030 and working to achieve SDG 4: Ensuring quality education and lifelong learning for all.

A battle for the soul of education

In her commentary on progress so far, Antonia Wulff, from Education International describes how the growth in global inequality and cuts in government services, are putting education in danger of becoming a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Since Agenda 2030 was passed in 2015 there has been a sharp drop in state funding for education, and an accompanying global funding shortage for UNESCO, the UN lead agency on education. As a result education is increasingly vulnerable to influence and pressure from donors and other players, contributing to an ideological shift that posits that private investment is the solution.

There are four global players in the education field: the World Bank, the OECD, the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (Education Commission), and the Varkey Foundation. They are carving up the way education is promoted: the battle for the soul of education has begun. The World Bank, which has a history of undermining public education and discouraging governments from regulating private providers, now advocates an ‘instrumentalist view’ of education that gauges success by the economic growth it yields.

The OECD promotes evidence-based policy-making and champions its assessment data as a prime indicator of education quality. This includes its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) initiative, which it currently markets as a tool for tracking progress towards SDG 4.

This has resulted in using data systems to assess progress. However, there are strong arguments against this. Firstly, the costs could be prohibitive. Secondly, this cannot measure the quality of education, and fails the transformational vision of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. For example, how could data measure: SDG 4.7 Target, that education should “promote sustainable development”.

To measure educational successes in keeping with SDG4, Wulff suggests:

  • Incorporate benchmarks that emphasise actions as well as indicators and highlight best practices.
  • Develop a set of proxy indicators or indices that display a wider view of education as described in SDG Target 4.7. “developing skills to promote sustainable development, and global citizenship”.

Taking other factors into account for successful education

In addition, when assessing the level of state funding for education, household expenditure on items such as school fees, books and uniforms must be factored in. In poorer countries this can amount to about half of total educational expenditure, so this needs to be taken into account when drawing up educational budgets.

  • In assessing figures on education spending and results, include financing of public goods and services, and social care.

 State education under threat

The two other organisations: the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (Education Commission), and the Varkey Foundation both wield considerable clout. The Education Commission comprises the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd) – that unlocks finance through a development bank investment mechanism, and the Education Outcomes Fund (EOF) that promotes privatisation and results-based financing by applying impact bonds for private actors.

The Varkey Foundation is the philanthropic branch of GEMS Education, the world’s largest for-profit private school system. Each year it holds a Global Education and Skills Forum that brings together high-level private actors with government ministers and education stakeholders, which is contrary to formal SDG 4 structures.

The way in which the education debate and fulfilling Agenda 2030 is shaping up shows that responsibility for education for all is being taken out of state hands. The implementation of the SDGs depends on all actors and actions being equally important and legitimate, but current developments undermine public, quality education.

  • Governments must uphold the principle that Member-States and UNESCO take the lead in SDG 4 implementation and governance.

Daphne Davies for Global Policy Watch

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